Commentary

Give U.S. the edge Thursday

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Before last year's Ryder Cup, captains seemed to own all of the importance of first-base coaches -- which is to say, other than filling out a lineup card or offering a pat on the butt every so often, they have had very little effect on the overall outcome.

As far as that role goes, though, Paul Azinger was Dick Fosbury, Bobby Orr and Wilt Chamberlain all rolled into one. He changed the game.

At Valhalla, Azinger developed a strategy of placing his players into three four-man groups -- pods, if you will -- in which each man could be paired with any of the other three in the four sessions of team competition. It was a strategy that worked to perfection, as the guys in red, white and blue used the team-within-a-team concept en route to a triumph for the first time this decade.

Curiously, U.S. captain Fred Couples has neglected to emulate such a plan for this week's Presidents Cup, though he'll hardly be picking out of a hat when pairing players for these matches. As Justin Leonard said before the twosomes were announced, "Our practice round pairings were certainly not a blind draw."

When Couples offered his pairings for Thursday's foursomes matches -- in a back-and-forth, fantasy-draft-style format with International captain Greg Norman -- he included three teams (Phil Mickelson-Anthony Kim, Lucas Glover-Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk-Leonard) that have been paired previously in team competitions.

Overall, the dozen American players have an average world ranking of 16.5, with 22 total major championships, compared with a 34.7 average ranking for their counterparts with nine fewer major titles. But how do they break down on Thursday? Let's examine all six matches:

International team flagInternational Team:
Mike Weir, Tim Clark
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Anthony Kim, Phil Mickelson
Match preview: As a football fan, Couples is familiar with winning a coin toss and deferring to the second half, which is exactly what he did in this situation, allowing Norman to name his initial pairing first. (As a ripple effect of that strategy, Couples was better able to dictate his lineup for later in the day.) When the Shark named his pea-shooting pairing of Clark and Weir -- each of whom rank 167th or lower in driving distance on the PGA Tour -- the U.S. skipper went with his big-bombing boys in response.

"Anthony Kim and Phil played at the Ryder Cup and enjoyed it," Couples said, "so that was a pretty easy one."

On a 7,137-yard course at which long hitters found success when a tourney was last played here in 2005, their length should matter. Despite the U.S. pair's 0-1-1 foursomes record at Valhalla, that advantage should be too much for the International duo to overcome.

Advantage: U.S.
Match Status: Begins at 3:10 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

International team flagInternational Team:
Adam Scott, Ernie Els
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Hunter Mahan, Sean O'Hair
Match preview: Scott's struggles have been chronicled throughout the year, as he has failed to finish better than T-33 on U.S. soil since January. Even so, Norman named his countryman as a wild-card selection, a pick that has been the subject of much controversy ever since. Don't be surprised, however, to see that risk pay off this week.

"They are both great friends, and they both wanted to play with each other," Norman said. "They have got compatible games in a lot of ways. Ernie used to play the Titleist ball, and Adam plays the Titleist ball. So a lot of that comes into play. So that was a no-brainer for both of them. [Els] said, 'Look, I want Scotty.' So if he wants Scotty, he's going to get Scotty."

Meanwhile, Mahan and O'Hair each reported losing money to de facto team assistant Michael Jordan in a Monday practice round match. That can't be a good sign.

Advantage: International
Match Status: Begins at 3:22 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

International team flagInternational Team:
Vijay Singh, Robert Allenby
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink
Match preview: Interesting stat of the day: Singh has played in every edition of the Presidents Cup; Allenby has competed in four of the past seven. Yet they never have been paired together. Shouldn't be an issue for the two veterans, although their recent play might be; each failed to qualify for the Tour Championship this season.

They will face the winners of the year's second and third major championships, a couple of guys from down South who are friends, play a similar style and golf ball, and have competed together before, albeit in a four-ball loss two years ago. Conventional wisdom says to stick with the hot hands in what should be a very closely contested match.

Advantage: U.S.
Match Status: Begins at 3:34 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

International team flagInternational Team:
Angel Cabrera, Camilo Villegas
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Kenny Perry, Zach Johnson
Match preview: Much has been made of the several languages spoken in the International team room, but Cabrera and Villegas -- the squad's two Spanish-speaking players -- should have no problem communicating in this match. (In fact, they might understand each other better than the U.S. duo, given that Perry has been the subject of lighthearted ridicule this week for his Kentucky accent.)

Another tough match to predict, though there is a glaring difference in the games of Perry and Johnson; the former averages 293.1 yards per drive, the latter 12 yards shorter. The X factor will be Villegas, who should thrive in this format. He often makes a bevy of birdies, but is undone by a big number or two in stroke-play rounds. Here, though, such foibles won't leave him in as much trouble.

Advantage: International
Match Status: Begins at 3:46 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

International team flagInternational Team:
Geoff Ogilvy, Ryo Ishikawa
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker
Match preview: We now bring you to our featured match of the day. Nothing against Stricker and Ogilvy -- two of the world's top 10 players -- but this one will garner attention for the presence of the current No. 1 player and an 18-year-old thought by many to be a future No. 1: Ishikawa.

How did Norman come to pair Ogilvy with the kid? That was simple.

"I asked him, 'Do you have any problems playing with Ryo?'" Norman said. "He said, 'I was going to tell you somewhere during the week before that I wanted to play with him,' so that was an easy one."

As for the U.S. duo, Woods and Stricker first told Couples of their wish to play together back at The Barclays in late August. They've seen enough of each other's games lately, having competed in seven total rounds together in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Tiger owns a 7-2-1 career Presidents Cup record in this format; don't be surprised if a win here locks in Stricker as his partner for three more matches.

Advantage: U.S.
Match Status: Begins at 3:58 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

International team flagInternational Team:
Retief Goosen, Y.E. Yang
U.S. flagU.S. Team:
Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard
Match preview: The anchor match, the only one of the six to include four major champions, should provide some fireworks. These are also four of the steadiest guys around, meaning lots of pars and halved holes in the alternate-shot format.

"You get two guys like a Jim Furyk and a Justin Leonard who live and die by very consistent and solid play," Couples explained. "They are a great team to put up."

They were paired for both foursomes matches back in 2003, compiling a 1-1-0 overall record, but at least have that experience to fall back on. As for the International twosome, each looked wiped at East Lake two weeks ago, finishing in the bottom third of the 30-man field.

Advantage: U.S.
Match Status: Begins at 4:10 p.m. ET
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 T
Int'l
U.S.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.